Tips for Hiking and Camping Near Bears

June 20, 2018
New York-New Jersey Trail Conference


Tips for Hiking and Camping Near Bears
Black Bear. Photo by U.S. Air Force/Mike Kaplan.


Bears are active in many parks in New York and New Jersey. Follow these tips when hiking or camping to avoid attracting bears.

With so many incredible parks and preserves so close to New York City, it may be easy to forget the fact that these places are still wild. Harriman State Park may be accessible via mass transit, but it’s very possible that just two hours after hopping the train at Penn Station, you could find yourself in front of a bear on the trail. 

Bears are active in almost all parks in our region. In recent weeks, bears have been making recurring appearances at several shelters in Harriman, including the popular Fingerboard Shelter. What’s the reason? Food! Bears are more likely to seek out human food sources in the spring, when natural food is scarce, and in the summer, particularly during periods of drought.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation provides a great explanation why feeding bears—intentionally or accidentally—causes trouble for both humans and the bears themselves:

“Bears are intelligent and curious. They spend a great deal of time exploring for food, and this can bring them close to humans. If an activity results in food, they will repeat that activity.

“When bears learn to obtain food from humans, they become bold and aggressive. Bear’s natural foraging habits and behavior are changed. When feeding from human sources, bears will often eat unhealthy materials such as soap, shaving cream, insect repellant, food packaging, etc.”

When we go hiking and camping, it is our responsibility to understand that doing something that may seem harmless—like throwing an apple core into the woods, spitting toothpaste behind your tent after brushing your teeth, or burning food wrappers—can have significant negative impact on bear behavior. 

Here are the DEC’s tips to avoid attracting bears:

  • Use Bear-Resistant Canisters - This is a highly effective means for preventing bears from getting your food, toiletries and garbage. If you have no choice but to hang your food be sure to use a dark-colored cord. The cord should be 75 feet long and the bag should be hung 15 feet above the ground and at least 10 feet away from trees.
  • Pack a Minimal Amount of Food and Plan Meals to Avoid Leftovers - The less food to store, the better. Use lightweight and dehydrated foods. Eat all that you cook.
  • Cook Before 5 p.m., Away From Your Campsite and Be Clean - Bears generally become active after 5 p.m.; have food stored and site cleaned by then. Choose an area at least 100 feet away from your campsite. Avoid spills and drippings.
  • Keep Food in Storage Containers - Only take out the food you plan to cook. Store food immediately if a bear approaches your cooking area.
  • Never Leave Food Unattended - Bears often watch, hidden in woods, waiting for opportunities to steal food.

If you encounter a bear:

  • Never Approach or Surround a Bear - Bears aggressively defend themselves when they feel threatened or cornered. Be especially cautious around cubs as mother bears are very protective.
  • Do Not Throw Your Backpack or Food Bag at an Approaching Bear - This practice will only encourage bears to approach and “bully” people to get food.
  • Use Noise to Scare Bears Away - Yell, clap or bang pots immediately upon sighting a bear near your campsite. Never run from the bear. If you feel threatened, back away slowly.
  • Avoid Walking Trails at Night - Stay in your campsite to avoid chance encounters.

Reports of bear activity in Harriman should be made to the Park Office at 845.947.2444.  Any emergency encounters should be reported to Park Police at 845.786.2781.

When we understand the impact of our actions when hiking or camping, we become better visitors of these spectacular places. By respecting wilderness and wildlife, we help to ensure those who walk the trails after us—humans, bears, and others!—also have a great, safe experience.

For more information on being a respectful hiker, visit our Hiking Resources.

Visit the DEC’s website for more tips on preventing human-bear conflicts

Then plan your next adventure outdoors with our Hike Finder.